Homily for the Mass of the 32nd Sunday, Year B St Dominic’s Church, Camberwell

08 Nov 2015

Homily for the Mass of the 32nd Sunday, Year B
St Dominic’s Church, Camberwell, 8 November 2015

A photo of First Communion Day 1955 here at St Dominic’s shows pews filled of young girls in white bridal gowns and tulle veils, expectantly awaiting their bridegroom the Eucharistic Lord. Ten such bridelings kneel on the sanctuary steps beside ten improbably suited boys also awaiting their first taste of the Real Presence. The priest is giving Holy Communion to these debutante-communicants, assisted by a server not much more than a boy himself, but dressed in menacing black and white robes. He holds the communion plate under each recipient’s chin while another young mediaeval in black and white kneels piously at the high altar.

Parishioners of St Dominic’s know this was not a case of “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition”. These men are of course young Dominican friars, their black and white habits signifying membership of an order devoted to preaching black-and-white truth. They’ve served faithfully in this parish since 1924. In those days Dominican sisters in equally ferocious garb taught most of the children of the district, including those making their first Holy Communion. The banners of the Holy Name Society visible in the snapshot guarding the aisles were a sign of one of the lay sodalities here, as many parishioners and even people from elsewhere in Melbourne, liked to associate themselves with the Order, its spirituality and its works. So the involvement of Dominican men and women, clergy and lay, in this parish has been a long and happy one.

I count it a great privilege to have lived in this priory community and parish on and off for almost two decades. During my formation as a religious, my studies for the priesthood, my years as Student Master, my work as a university lecturer, the priory was my home, this church my sanctuary and this parish my support. Here I was immersed in the life of a friar, eating, sleeping, praying and studying with my brethren. I loved it! I have never for a moment regretted joining the Dominicans. I remember fondly singing Mass and preaching here, baptizing and absolving, taking part in the RCIA programme and many other aspects of the parish’s life.

This weekend the Order of Preachers begins its solemn celebration of the 800th anniversary of its formal recognition by the Holy See in 1216. For some years prior to that Dominic had been exploring what he and his women and men might offer the Church. His was a time of great economic and social change, increasing urbanisation, the rise of a middle class, and the advent of the universities with their challenging new ideas. But for all the excitement there was a deep malaise in Church and society. The clergy were not zealous, the religious far from holy, the laity ignorant of their faith, and so weird and not-so-wonderful new age religions were spreading like wildfire. And so exactly 800 years ago the Church convoked an ecumenical Council. Like the Second Vatican Council that closed 50 years ago next month, the Fourth Lateran Council called for a renewal of priestly, religious and lay life and for a new evangelisation of those individuals, institutions and cultures that should already have been Catholic but had fallen away. Dominic’s Order was to be the answer to the Council fathers’ prayers.

But if they were to be so, they needed to be rather better educated than run-of-the-mill priests of that time. They needed to know their Bible and the sacred sciences. So St Dominic carried around with him Matthew’s Gospel and Paul’s letters – the lectionary of his day. It meant he could always be pondering his next homily. He sent his men to the fledgling universities to learn all they could of the new philosophy and the ancient faith. And he asked that they might have faculties to preach and hear confessions wherever they went. On encountering this holy man filled with apostolic zeal, Pope Honorius confirmed the Order just before Christmas of 1216 and the following month determined it would be in name and fact “an Order of Preachers”.

“Christ’s unconquered athletes,” he called them, “armed with the shield of faith and the helmet of salvation”. They were not to fear those who could kill the body but rather “valiantly fight the foes of the Faith”, not with earthly weapons but “with the Word of God which is keener than any double-edged sword” 1. Perhaps the Pope wore a sardonic grin as he compared these chubby and couldn’t-hurt-a-fly friars with athletes and warriors: but he knew it was a spiritual combat in which they were engaged. And in due course they would take their team sport to the ends of the earth, even as far as East Camberwell in Melbourne, Australia.
Military and athletic metaphors for Christian mission can be jarring today, even if they are thoroughly Scriptural (e.g. Heb 4:12; Eph 2:1-3; 6:12-18). We rightly fear religious fanatics who insist that their interpretation of their faith tradition is the only acceptable belief for any human being and who dream of imposing some sort of caliphate in which all religious difference and indifference is wiped out. Of course, in Australia we are more likely to meet anti-religious fanatics than religious ones, those who dream of a secular caliphate in which all religious belief is eradicated from law, institutions, culture and the human heart. But the fear of totalizing spiritual ideologies and the violence they can excuse is a reasonable one. St Dominic was very clear that his project was to propose not impose, to convince not coerce. Likewise Pope Francis, who no-one fears is trying to force Catholic faith down people’s necks, is not shy to use military and sporting metaphors for the spiritual life himself. Though little reported in the media, for instance, he regularly talks about spiritual warfare with the Devil going on within each of us. One of his favourite ways of describing the Church is as “a field hospital after battle”. Today, according to the Holy Father, the Church needs to be near people with open wounds or deep scars from one kind of combat or another, ready to soothe and heal them 2. Again and again he calls us to bring the tender mercy of God to those on the edge, those who are hurting. And so like St Dominic we must ask ourselves where those ‘existential peripheries’ are, who are in those spiritual and emotional war-zones, in contemporary Melbourne.

The chief weapon of the Dominicans, of course, is the Word of God, alive and active, searching and penetrating the human heart (Heb 4:12-13). One reason it is so powerful is that it reveals the Good News of God’s boundless mercy and generosity. Our readings today, for instance, speak of the miraculous power of God’s Word to raise up the lowly, honouring, preserving and nourishing them (1Kgs 17:10-16; Mk 12:38-44). In their poverty, as St Dominic acknowledged, in their littleness, dependence, gratitude and witness to things that matter beyond wealth and privilege, they can be living Gospels.

Of course, the generosity of the widow’s mite, or of any human endeavour, pales in comparison to the generosity of the God whose care for the human race was prefigured in our first reading and fulfilled in the coming of Christ. In our epistle, the measure of God’s gift in His Son is made clear: He came to us “to do away with sin by sacrificing himself” (Heb 9:24-8). What ultimately matters is not our lack of flour or mites or worldly esteem, but that gravest lack of all that is sin, the lack of obedience, humility, love, that weakens or even cuts our ties with God. Christ our true High Priest came to take the emptiness of sin away, offering us the fullness of healing and reconciliation. Probing our minds and consciences, God’s Word calls us out of sin and into His tender mercy. In this coming Jubilee Year of Mercy the Pope has called upon some priests and religious to be dedicated ministers of mercy. But that, of course, has always been at the heart of the Dominican vocation and so of the vocation of this parish: to preach the truth in love (Eph 4:15), to preach that Truth who is the Divine Pity, Mercy incarnate, who in His richness calls us out of the poverty of sin into the freedom and flourishing of the children of God. Congratulations Octocentenarians of St Dominic! God bless you!